Miners in Europe are shifting to deep sea mining: Lessons for Uganda

Monday November 6 2017

The machinery used by scientists at GEE

The machinery used by scientists at GEEOMAR Helmhotz Center for Ocean Research Keil West Shore University campus in Germany. It is used in deep sea mining. Photo by Lominda Afedraru 

By Lominda Afedraru

There is advancement in science and technology in the mining sector with scientists from developed countries exploring options of future mineral mining to occur under seas and oceans

Scientists majoring in Geoscience in deep sea mining in Europe, USA, Asia among others are already carrying out research for possibilities of mining minerals deposits of various types.

This is because there is global interest in mining these minerals under the waters but the ecosystem has to be understood well before companies can embark in the same.

 In German its Federal Ministry of Education and Research has teamed with various universities engaged in this research to provide ship time under water for scientists.

 This is not the same for Uganda’s mining sector since most of the mining activities are done on the earth surface although with a possibility of mining uranium by the year 2040.

 Prof Andrea Koschinsky from the department of Physics and Earth Science Jacobs University Bremen  explaining to international Science journalists during the Oceans and seas 2017 press tour about Marine Mineral Resources and deep sea mining , chances, challenges and environmental implications  notes that all metal mineral mined constitutes about 30% of the Earth surface  causing environmental destruction.

 This he said is the cause scientists are carrying out research exploring ways of how mining companies can utilize existence of minerals that are 1600 million meters below sea level.

 There are areas that have been licensed since the year 2006 for global sea mining and the study areas are to determine the impact of deep sea mining, how the mineral are formed from discharged water particles and removal of subtracts creation of dust clouds on the sea flow.

It can take approximately 20 million years for the particles to compose into minerals.

 Scientists have carried out experiments where the mimicked formation of minerals abstracts and established that about 90% of the fauna under the oceans and seas is a material for mineral formation.

This research is done under a European Union framework comprising of 25 institutes form 11 countries in different parts of the world namely Germany, USA China and other countries in the European Union.

 The aim is to asses changes in segments arising from disturbing the seabed surface and if an area is mined for about 26 years or more, it will cause changes thereby affecting the marine life living in water.

 At the moment there are countries involved in mining Sulphur under water but on small quantity.

 Prof Koschinsky explains that there are about 156 countries globally that have ratified the law on deep sea mining and in the research scientists are looking at a scenario of the challenges it may cause to communities living close to the oceans and seas.

Prof Laurenz Thomsen from Jacobs University presenting a paper about “deep sea ecosystem, monitoring using mobile seafloor robots, lessons learnt from space research” explained that in 2011, Governments in Europe decided that scientists carrying out research in deep sea mining and those in space science must work jointly.

 This led him to develop a robot for deep sea mining with mobile tracking gadget and it is being used by scientists from Oceans network Canada to get appropriate information about formation of minerals.

 It has been deployed by scientists along water shores in Vancouver Canada to study how the snow and other mineral segments and organic matter are forming and whether they disturb habitats in the water bodies.

 Dr Sveen Petesen senior scientist specializing in marine resources from GEEOMAR Helmhotz Center for Ocean Research Keil west shore university campus explaining about “hot vents and associated mineral deposits from deep sea risk and chances” notes that since the world population needs land for carrying activities such as agriculture and infrastructure, it is therefore proper to venture into deep sea mining.

 He explained that scientists have studied formation of chimneys rich in carbon and copper formation in oceans and seas compared to what is on ground. The chimneys are formed by heated sea water currents and when hot and cold water currents meet, there is occurrence of titration forming smoke like particles.

 This mainly occurs in the South West Pacific Ocean and not much in Atalntic and Indian Ocean.

Dr Sveen notes that at the University scientists develop explorations tools which are used for drilling during the research process and discoveries of minerals and silver do exist in some of the deposits.

 Some explorations have been done where about 10 – 15 metric tons of waste deposits are found in some parts of the water for possible mineral formation.  The research is done to advice governments to make good decision on how mining companies can engage in deep sea mining and what procedures to follow.

 The mineral of interest are Silver, Gold and Zinc. Other parts of the water contain sea mercury on sea flow and scientists are looking at its level of concentration and how dangerous it is to aquatic life.

 In the monitoring exercise Dr Jens Greinert from the same university explains that if massive mining is done, there will be loss in some of the habitats in seas and oceans, there will be change in ecosystem structure as well as water surface sediments.

 This is done by taking images under water using the appropriate equipment. Here the scientists carried out experiment in 8 meter square radius of water body by extracting tons of mineral nodules.

 The economic value was calculated for each ton of dry mineral nodules to be at 8,660 Euros but most mining companies have no interest because the exercise is expensive.

 It will be governments to invest in deep sea mining and there is also worry that extraction of metals like Cooper, Zinc and Nickel cannot form easily under the sea and it will be difficult to replace them in areas of interst.

Comparison from what is going on Uganda

Uganda's extractive mining industry activities have been identified by the Natural Resource mainly on main land. The mineral that are being mined in the country include Cobalt, Salt and Cooper in the district of Kasese Western Uganda, Gold in fragmented areas in Karamoja region, diamond and limestone among others done across the country.

However, oil and gas exploration is ongoing and the government has issued production licenses to Total E&P and Tullow.

Uganda government granted production licenses for Exploration Area 1 (EA1) at the northern end of Lake Albert around Murchison Falls National Park operated by Total and Exploration Area 2 (EA2) to the east of Lake Albert in Butiaba region operated by Tullow in South Western Uganda commonly known as the Albertine Graben.

There are also prospects of Uranium exploration in Western Uganda for possible production of nuclear power.

 In a 2015 publication Oil in Uganda by Luke Williams an Environment, Health and Safety professional based in the UK civil nuclear industry, working for Westinghouse Electric UK, he states that Uganda’s vision 2040 estimates that the country will require 41, 7338 Megawatts of installed capacity of energy where nearly 60% will come from nuclear power.

It is stated in the publication that in 2004 the Department of Geological Survey and Mines under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development embarked on Sustainable Management of Mineral Resources Project with financial support from the World Bank, African Development Bank and Nordic Development Fund with the main objective to promote Uganda as a destination for mineral exploration by domestic and international companies..

There was an Aerial Geophysical Survey using gamma ray spectrometer covering around 80% of the country. This culminated in the production of high resolution radiometric uranium data.

The survey indicated that Uganda has about 52,000 square kilometers of uranium prospects. This includes 18,000 km2 in the Buganda-Toro region, 12,000 km2 in the Karagwe-Ankole region, 5,000 km2 between Lake Albert and Lake Kyoga, 5,000 km2 around Lake Edward, 900 km2 on the Buhweju plateau and 12,000 km2 in Lake Albert.

Global statistics about Energy consumption documented in the World Atlas 2017

It is stated that about 80 percent of global primary energy consumption is currently covered by fossil fuels. The largest portion is black and brown coal followed by oil and natural gas.
In order to reach the two-degree climate goal, what can be burnt is 12 percent of the known coal reserves, two-thirds of the known oil reserves, and around 50 percent of the known natural gas reserves but with challenging pollution effects into the atmosphere.

 Experts in developed countries argue that for energy independence lead countries to focus on oil and natural gas with possibilities of extracting the same in deep seas and oceans.

Most oilfields are in deep water areas at depths below 400 meters. These extreme depths are currently not under consideration due to the low price of oil on the global market.

 Reserves concerning methane hydrate are located on continental shelves around the world mainly in Japan and Alaska, along the Pacific coasts of North and South America, near India and West Africa, and in the Black Sea. This is what is being under study by scientists around the globe.

 Other options are wind power plants that are placed anywhere with strong, constant winds, like on the high seas. However, to be economically and technically feasible, the turbines must be securely anchored in depths of 40 meters or less.

 These plants compete with other industries and concerns like shipping, fishing, tourism and nature preservation for the right to use the seas.